We are witnessing appalling scenes from New Orleans, reminiscent of the dystopic vision of Mad Max blended with Waterworld.  Heart wrenching scenes of people desperate for food, water, health care and transport. A breakdown in law and order. Police officers  bravely defending the their stations under sustained attack.  Gangs of youths roaming the city, looting and raping. Troops sent in with shoot-to-kill orders.  Shanty towns developing in sporting facilites.  Maybe some of this is sensationalism by the mainstream media; let us hope that this is not the reality faced by most people.

I have two immediate reactions.

First, just how close we all are, all the time, to a collapse in civilisation, and a Hobbesian state. On the surface, the institutions of society seem strong, natural and permanent. But this is a facade. Take away that superstructure, even if only for a few days, and apparently our humanity deserts us.  We saw during the Rwanda genocide how crowds can be whipped into hysteria, and persuaded to commit atrocities that seem to us unthinkable. Within days of hardship in America, the richest society on earth, founded on noble principles, society appears if not to have fallen apart then to be fraying at the edges. Society must never be taken for granted, and we must never be complacent about what we need to do to nurture and sustain it.

Second, I wonder if this would have happened quite like this in Europe.  Leave aside whether the rescue services would have done a better job.  Has Europe developed stronger instincts of cooperation and mutual support? Has America developed a more individualistic, survival of the fittest society?  Has the social and economic exclusion of poor blacks, who have been worst affected by the flooding of New Orleans, created a group of people who do not feel they owe anything to their community?  In Europe, would the relative social cohesiveness have done more to keep social structures and community cooperation together? Let us hope we never find out. How much difference does it make having guns?

A tragedy has befallen New Orleans. May hope and society be soon restored.


Owen Barder

Owen is CEO of Precision Agriculture for Development. He has worked in the office of the UK Prime Minister, the British Treasury, the Department for International Development; and at the Center for Global Development.


am · September 1, 2005 at 10:59 pm

“Second, I wonder if this would have happened quite like this in Europe.”

Bosnia, Kosova and Serbia are in Europe…

Maybe you meant Western Europe.

Bishop Hill · September 2, 2005 at 1:28 am

There were reports of looting after the Birmingham tornado in July. Police were brought in from outlying districts to maintain law and order.

I don’t think it’s fair to say it couldn’t happen here.

MatGB · September 2, 2005 at 1:36 am

There’s some evidence, even if currently anecdotal, that the evacuation plans may have marginalised the poorest and left them there, either deliberately or by negligence.

In which case, those left are predominantly the poorest and least connected to society. In a society where the differential between rich and poor is huge, maybe a breakdown in these circumstances was inevitable?

I don’t think it would happen in the same way, to the same extent, in W. Europe. It may happen on a small scale, but it didn’t happen during the floods in Germany/Austria recently, although I’m not sure as disasters go that they’re comparable. What would happen in the event of genuine breakdown of governance? I hope I never have to find out.

Brian · September 2, 2005 at 12:14 pm

There’s a comparison of sorts with Cyclone Tracy which devastated the northern Australian city of Darwin on Christmas Eve, 1974 (I was in Canberra at the time and was one of the first people outside the Northern Territory to learn of the disaster half-way through Christmas Day, almost all of Darwin’s external communications having been blown away by Tracy. I visited Darwin just a few days later). Major differences of course — but some similarities. I’ll try to put something on it on my blog soon.


Ephems of BLB · September 3, 2005 at 3:14 am

Hurricane Katrina and Cyclone Tracy

There are interesting comparisons between the responses to Hurricane Katrina in the southern US and to Cyclone Tracy which devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974… [more >>>]

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